Police in south-central China detained six urban management officers on Saturday on suspicion of intentionally harming others after a rural watermelon grower died in a conflict with local authorities when he tried to sell his fruit in their county.
The death of Deng Zhengjia earlier in the week has infuriated the public, who have long resented the heavy-handed tactics of the urban management officers, known as "chengguan." Though they have no legal authority to use force, they are often accused of beating people who commit minor infractions in shows of power that have fueled social tension, triggered riots and aggravated public discontent against the government.
A man from the Linwu county police confirmed the detentions, which were reported by the official Xinhua News Agency. The man declined to give his name, which is common among low-ranking Chinese bureaucrats.
"The public expect to know the truth of the incident and to have the case properly handled, but they also are calling for reflection on what is the root of violent enforcement," Xinhua said in a Friday editorial. "Let's hope the tragedy of a watermelon grower's death can be the end of violent enforcement by chengguan."
The Communist Party-run People's Daily also opined in its Twitter-like account in the wake of Deng's death. "Maintaining social order with force is no different from fighting fire with wood," it said.
The detentions came amid mounting public anger at the handling of the case by local authorities in Linwu county, which is in Hunan province. While eyewitness accounts in state media indicated Deng was most likely beaten to death, the county government said Deng died suddenly, but did not offer a clear cause. An ensuing episode in which the government reportedly took Deng's corpse by force from family members had the public complain of a possible cover-up to eschew responsibility.
Set up in 1997, the urban management bureaus around China are tasked with enforcing non-criminal city codes covering issues such as street vending, noise control, sanitation and parking, but they have gained a reputation for highhandedness, unfairness and violence.
Many Chinese use the term "chengguan" as shorthand for brute force as a cure-all for any problem, and critics say the power abuses are symptomatic of an authoritarian government's lack of checks and balances.
There have been frequent reports of violence by urban management officers throughout China, and some have resulted in large protests and confrontations between residents and government officials.
In June, video footage of code officers punching and kicking a shopkeeper, and even jumping on his head after he was shoveled onto the ground, in the city of Ya'an enraged the Chinese public and resulted in 11 officers being punished.
Deng, the watermelon grower, and his wife, Huang Xixi, had traveled from their rural village of Liantang and set up a street-side watermelon stand in Linwu on Wednesday morning when they were told they could not do so.
Media reports say Linwu's urban code enforcers accused Deng of selling his goods without a license and fined him 100 yuan ($16). Later, Deng and his wife moved their melon stand to another venue, but the enforcers arrived and a quarrel ensued.
Eyewitnesses told state media that the enforcers beat Deng and his wife and that later Deng was seen lying on the ground, motionless.
In a written statement, Linwu county said Deng and Huang were selling watermelons in an area that was not designated for that and were uncooperative when the city code enforcers told the couple to move their stand to a designated area. It said the enforcers confiscated four watermelons and left the scene.
But when the patrolling enforcers encountered the couple at the new venue later, Deng and Huang swore at them, and the officers felt compelled to argue, the county statement said.
"The argument between the two sides developed into physical confrontations, and during the process, Deng Zhengjia suddenly fell and died," the statement said.
Eyewitnesses said an enforcer hit Deng in the head with a scale weight, but the county government denied it, as reported by Xinhua. The news agency reported that local authorities had collected body samples from Deng - who had an autopsy before his Friday burial - and sent them to another province to help determine the cause of death.